föstudagur, mars 31, 2006

irish spring

After I had been living here a few months, the receptionist at work called me over and told me I had a package. I went to her desk and there was a beat-up cardboard box that had been opened and then taped back closed with Iceland Postal Service tape. When I picked it up, the stuff inside slid around.

It was a box from my uncle, who had heard through the family grapevine that I was asking for NyQuil on someone's next trip here. He had sent the box surface mail, and by the time I got it the Cape Cod postmark was something like 9 weeks in the past. The corners of the box were all pushed in and dented, and in the shape of the box I could see remote stevedores in sweaty tropical climes lowering the box in a net into the hold of yet another Clipper ship, for the next leg of the journey through the Straits of Malacca.

The thing with the NyQuil is that I had been almost immediately sick with a new-country cold when I first came to Iceland. When I went to the local Lyf og Heilsa pharmacy in the Smáralind mall (English slogan: "Is there anything they don't have?"), I realized that the Miracle Ass-kicking NyQuil Cure wasn't available in the Land. It's a whole different suite of cold medicines they got here, and none of them are quite the delicious 4-drug cocktail that is NyQuil. Hence the offhand NyQuil remark to my mom. Hence the box on its 9-week sea voyage.

But when I opened the box, the generic CVS NightTime Cold Remedy he had sent wasn't in there. Instead there was a note from Customs, explaining in Icelandic that this medicine wasn't authorized for sale in Europe and so had to be removed. Perhaps some Customs Mom's kid was enjoying the Miracle Cure that very night. Anyway, no medicine. But I could have told my uncle that up front and saved him the trouble. You can't usually send drugs through the mail and expect them to arrive as-is in a foreign land.

What was in the box was the remainder of the shipment: an enormous bottle of hand lotion and four bars of Irish Spring soap. While I appreciated the gesture, I found it noteworthy that my uncle thought that Iceland was a place where hand cream and soap were in short supply. Here I was, settling in to a new life in one of the world's richest countries, a place where a generous social safety net renders the concept of abject poverty moot, and I had a box of soap and some hand cream from the States.

But it was nice to get a care package just the same. So I made good use of it, and started in on the Irish Spring. And this morning, 16 months later, I finished the last bar of Irish Spring. E was elated. She won't be singing leprechaun songs in the morning anymore. Or so she thought. I looked in the cupboard after my shower and there was still one final green bar. Those Irish sure know a thing or two about putting together a hardy soap.

miðvikudagur, mars 29, 2006

rokk í reykjavík

Last Friday my bro wanted to see some metal shows, and the Nordic lands love their heavy metal, so Iceland has plenty of it to go around. I did a little online research and talked to the proprietor of 12 Tónar, and decided that the best option for my brother's tastes was
Reykjavík's seminal Grand Rokk club. I threw on my "rock uniform": my cousin's classic 80s beat-to-hell stuffing-coming-out-the-sleeve leather jacket over a Katz's Delicatessen ("Send a salami to your boy in the army") T-shirt and jeans and we headed down Öldugata into town.

After a quick stop in at Hressó to see the night's cover band crank out Black by Pearl Jam, Johnny B. Goode, and Icelandic sing-along favorites (preceded by the question "Eru margir útlendingar við?" to which I was the only "Já!" callback from the crowd) we walked up the hill to Grand Rokk. It's on Smiðjustígur, a side street off of Laugavegur, and has the we're-an-institution shabbiness that characterizes all good rock clubs. Inside, it's got some gambling machines in front, a bar on the side, and a collection of well-used (even during rock hours) chess tabletops in the back by the bathrooms. A dark carpeted stairway leads up to the second floor, kind of a built-in ascension to the hallowed halls of rock above.

We arrived upstairs in the middle of a series of rock bands that made up the Cod Musik Festival. My brother wasn't disappointed with the crowd: he wanted kids in hooded sweatshirts swaying to the sound and staring at their shoes. And he got that. But he got more. A lot more.

The first band we saw (Andrúm?) had a cute girl bassist/vocalist, and a vast John Popper-esque mountain of a man on, I think, keyboards. But they wrapped up soon after we arrived and my bro went to get us some beers while I watched a pack of late-teens rock girls filter up the stairs, chatting nervously. The place had that great disaffected vibe of a T.T. The Bear's or a Wetlands. A low ceiling and maroon walls and some tacky lantern lights glued on the far wall. And lots of sweatshirts and Chuck Taylors.

The best band we saw was undoubtedly NilFisk. I was happy to finally see them live, as I had seen them in Gargandi Snilld last summer:

These guys all look to be on the south side of driving age, and come from the small fishing village of Stokkseyri. They rehearse in a garage, and talk shyly on-camera about their music, philosophy, lyrics. Then the movie abruptly cuts to a Foo Fighters concert in Reykjavík, with Dave Grohl explaining how he met a great band in Stokkseyri the day before. He proceeds to introduce the boys of Nilfisk, who open up for the Foo Fighters in front of thousands. It was their first performance outside of their garage.

Live, NilFisk packed a big wallop, with a heavy sound that nonetheless retained a lot of pop appeal. They played tightly together and have a roomful of talent. Afterward, one of the guys (in the requisite AC/DC T-shirt) was standing near us and my brother told him he'd like to get them in at the Middle East. The guy responded, "sure!" before his sweatshirt-wearing groupie/girlfriend dragged him away.

After NilFisk, my brother got a little worried when the next guys (Black Valentine?) dragged some bongo drums onstage. "This kind of 'world music' setup bodes badly for heavy metal sounds," he mourned. And he was right, but more than that, they were actually terrible. In a rare feat, the guy on bongos was perhaps the most effective of the musicians. The rest of the guys belted out bad English lyrics standing around a microphone, backs to the audience. So we left.

After stops in at Kaffibarinn and Ölstofan to gauge the scene - a solid B at K-barinn (watch spelling), C- at Ölstofan (drifts far from topic)- we headed back down the hill to another pillar of local rock, Gaukur Á Stöng (Parrot on a Stick). We were in time to catch the first set by Jeff Who?, a funny name to me as I went to school with a kid named Jeff Hu and he hated this joke.

The self-dubbed disco rock band had a too-cocky lead singer, but with that lead singer cockiness came the adoring female fans. But also the adoring male fans. There was a lot of adoration in the crowd, so much so that my brother and I were pushed out to the side and ended up at a back table. Jeff Who? had the crowd eating out of their hands; they could have covered Freebird in their disco rock cock jock style and the people would have loved it. They were tight, good musicians, and I might have actually stayed (seeing as how I like horns) but my brother was let down by the lack of monster metal riffs, and so we ducked out at 2:30 a.m. or so and walked back up the still-dark and chilly night streets of Vesturbær, to them old cotton fields back home.

all ages show

Last night I played in my first concert with the esteemed Lúðrasveit Reykjavíkur, the City Band of R-town. As I was sitting in my seat before the show began, looking around at the ensemble, it occurred to me just how astounding was the mix of ages playing together at the front of that church. There is one old dude playing trombone who told me he's 76 and has been playing with the band for as long as he can remember. Then there are kids that don't look a day over 10, and maybe even younger. In the middle there are awkward teenagers, less-awkward people in their 20s, hip cats in their 30s, and wise folk in their 40s and 50s.

That's been one of the biggest changes for me in coming to Iceland from Boston: I am now interacting on a daily basis with almost the broadest variety of ages possible. In my young-professional cocoon in Boston, I pretty much worked with, ate with, and rode the T with my own ilk. I rarely saw a baby, a young child, or a teenager in my daily routine. Kids and their parents were ensconced somewhere "safe" and uneventful in the suburbs. People in their 70s were kept somewhere else like managed care. Kids, the elderly, and even people in their 50s and 60s were all completely alien to me, and seemed to have almost no part in my daily society.

But here in the small-town comfort of the Land, I am forced to have conversations with the teenagers around me in the band. I talk to the old dudes in the hot tubs. And my friends come from a broad spectrum of ages, from early 20s to mid-60s. Last night at the post-concert party, the old trombone player was drinking a big glass of beer, puffing on a cigar, and leaning over a tableful of teenagers to sing "The Lion Speaks Tonight".

föstudagur, mars 24, 2006

the colorful regulars of laugardalslaug

On many days after work, E and I go to the largest Reykjavík swimming pool, Laugardalslaug, or washing-valley-pool. (I sometimes refer to this as the "daily driver" of Reykjavík pools.) This pool is popular with tourists in the summer (such as the infamous American mother-daughter combo talking loudly about "going into Rake-javv-ick" the next day, not realizing they were already there) but in the colder months we have the place all to ourselves. Well, us and the Regulars. Here is just a partial listing of the characters that make the daily-driver experience what it is:

Steven Seagal: one of the men's locker room attendants, he has a Seagal-esque ponytail and one time fetched me a towel when mine was stolen by several members of an unruly visiting swim team. So he's a nice guy. But I think, if called to it, he could kick some serious ass. Maybe even pull off a floor-mop beating or two.

High School Principal Man: a hot tub regular, so called because to me he looks like he was once a high school principal. He just has the look. But now he spends his days soaking up the steam and talking to his cronies out in massaging hot pot #2.

Iceland shield guy: this German guy was a competitor in Iceland Idol, and is also a sometimes-Regulah at the Daily Drivah. The thing about him is that he has the entire Icelandic coat of arms tatooed on his chest. In full color. No joke. I envy that level of commitment to the Land, or really to anything.

Steve Martin: another of the men's locker room crew, he has a head of silver hair and back before the new locks were installed was a diligent token-emptier in the vast forest of lockers. I keep expecting him to say, "Half double decaf half-calf, with a twist of lemon." But mostly he just mops.

not-only-a-desk-lady, also-a-client-lady: she works the main desk, always looking elegant as she checks ID and says "góðan daginn" with a matronly hint of recognition. But then sometimes just minutes later, she'll be seen, elegant as ever, sitting at the edge of the family hot tub with her hair still impeccably coiffed. I'm glad she believes enough in the pool to want to visit it after she's worked an entire desk shift.

Quasimodo: the dark-haired evil genius of the men's locker room staff. He's always hunched over a mop, or leaning on one, growling at one of his old-man customer buddies. One time he yelled at me when I had to go back into the locker area to help a visiting friend close his locker, because I was wet from the shower. So I try to avoid him now, evil genius that he is.

humping-the-nuddpottur-guy: perhaps the single most dishturbing human being north of Newfoundland, this guy is seen thankfully only sporadically. He's got stringy hair and a beard and gut and wears strange bathing suits, something like 1980s "jams" that were once colorful, but now retain only faded glory. When he's in the nuddpottur (massaging hot tub) he's often standing on the seat backwards with his body facing one of the water jets, holding onto the safety fence bars with both hands and humping up and down, in what is usually an all-out hot-tub-clearing maneuver. One time I saw him in the showers afterward, sitting on the floor of a shower stall, legs in the lotus position, water pouring down on his stringy head.

"gaman að sjá þig!": The quintessential regular, and the one who always brings a smile to my face, this is one smiley and cheerful character. He looks young, younger than me at least, and his face is always full of happiness and surprise. Since he is there so much, he recognizes almost everyone, and greets them with, "Gaman að sjá þig og takk fyrir síðast!" ("Great to see you and thanks for last time!") He's always trying to rope other regulars (usually old men) into long conversations in the locker room or the hot tubs. He seems to spend hours at the pool: once I saw him on his way out as I was coming in and when I was done with swim, steaming, and soaking over an hour later, he was still showering and drying off, chatting up a storm with anyone around him, and sometimes nobody is around him. But his cheerfulness is contagious.

bluebeard guy and his girlfriend: they're always swimming laps and then talking American English together in the hot tubs. Sometimes when they want to talk about some other Americans they'll switch to Icelandic. He seems to like the nuddpottur, and she the steam room, so sometimes they split up. Oh wait, that's me and E. I guess we're Regulars, too. At least High School Principal Man thinks so. He always nods a "hello" at me on his way out of the steam room.

fimmtudagur, mars 23, 2006


Keilir is an old volcano that lies on Reykjanes, the peninsula to the south and west of Reykjavík. I took the day off of work yesterday to spend time with my brother who's in town from Boston, and we decided to climb the old volcano.

It was a cold day, somewhere in the 20s with a wind on top of that (and just on Sunday I was crowing about the summer!) and there was a dusting of snow on the mountains that ring the Reykjavík area. We headed south on Reykjanesbraut and then off on the dirt road that crosses a vast lava field and leads to the base of the mountain.

We couldn't find a way to drive to the base of Keilir, and then a couple phone calls confirmed that indeed there was no road to the base. It was going to involve a long trek across the lava from the gravel parking area. So we suited up and set out. Crossing the lava is no picnic: it involves climbing up and back down a lot of rocky hillocks and always looking out for hidden crevasses under the snow. After following another hiker's tracks up and down the rocky outcroppings for an hour, my GPS showed that we had come less than half a mile from the car.

But then it got easier as we came to a fairly flat plain and crossed all of that at a good clip. I was glad for every bit of gear we had. My brother had come with a face mask and balaclava and we each put on one of those to cut the biting wind on our faces. We had plenty of water and a couple of Þykkmjólks for sustenance and a good amount of layers each.

Then we were at the base of the great volcano, the rocky slope of the side towering above us. We started up, avoiding snow drifts and slippery rocks. About halfway up, we ran into the hiker whose trail we had been following, coming down the mountain. In my imagination, following those footprints for a few hours, I had been following a stoic Icelandic hiking master, but in reality it was a young kid from Nebraska with headphones on, wearing a camouflage jacket and jeans, on a day's leave from the American base at Keflavík. We chatted for a bit, then with a parting "Watch out you don't fall on your ass!" he headed on down the mountain. Moving up, we came to the toughest part of the hike. It was loose gravel, under snow, and got increasingly steep as we neared the top of the volcano.

But we did it, made it to the top and popped open our Þykkmjólk and stared out in all directions. Reykjavík was a tiny village on a peninsula below the towering Esja and Akrafjall mountains. Keflavík was a powdery couple of houses on another peninsula. And all around us were the original inhabitants of Iceland, towering white mountains gleaming in the sun.

mánudagur, mars 20, 2006

te og kaffi

Perhaps the most laid-back place for a weekend cup of coffee is the relaxed Te og Kaffi store on Laugavegur, the Main Street of Iceland. Te og Kaffi (I'll leave the translation as an exercise for the non-Icelandic reader; it ain't hard) is smoke-free and street-level with big windows that look out onto the sidewalk, where women sometimes leave their babies parked in snuggly weatherproofed baby carriages. There are a few choice "doubles" tables at the front of the store, and then further in some larger round tables for groups, and booths in back. The waitstaff are full of smiles and friendly in that shy Icelandic way, and when they bring the cappuccino over it's made with a heart in the foamed milk. Then they'll let you sit and enjoy that cappuccino and read for the better part of an afternoon. I have been going there the last few weekends, bringing my namesake's Guns, Germs, and Steel with me, but I often end up instead puzzling through some article in the Sunday Morgunblaðið, totally engrossed, the sounds of Icelandic Sunday chit-chat pattering on around me.

sunnudagur, mars 19, 2006

first sunday of summer

Today has that feeling, a little bit warm, a lot of light (until 8:30 this evening), and the fresh smells of new things growing. The land is greening up, with the first mosses at the base of Esja recovering their color, and the promise of the grass to follow soon. On the way to Grafarvogslaug today we saw our friend Sammi out washing his car and stopped by to chat. He gave RZzy a power-wash for his wheels with his tidy yellow Euro-power-washer, and then as we were swimming down the street at the pool, I could smell the powerful smells of barbecued burgers and dogs. It was a big contrast to just a short while ago when we were smelling gunsmoke in the dark at that same pool.

föstudagur, mars 17, 2006

the dead blog

I am posting this now, but you are definitely not reading it now because Iceland Report has been dead for more than 12 hours to this point. Blogger is having some kind of massive server problems, with an entire file server brought to its knees. It couldn't come at a worse time; Friday afternoons are typically a boon for Iceland Report traffic, as all of you hard-working readers look for ways to while away the time until the work whistle blows. And because of our international readership here at IR, from Australia to India to Europe to Iceland to the west coast of America, that innocent concept of "Friday afternoon" is in actuality a massive behemoth that spans an incredible 23 hours. And more than half of that beautiful international Friday afternoon has now disappeared. I only hope Blogger figures out what's ailing it soon.

Have a happy weekend! Góða helgi!

fimmtudagur, mars 16, 2006

d.s. al coda

My former upstairs neighbor is a friendly guy who used to be in a rock band that toured the world but now is a music teacher in the Reykjavík schools. He also has a band that he conducts in the evenings, sort of a community affair. He kept bugging me about playing with them, and I always had language lessons, or other excuses, but finally we ran into him in the Hrói Höttur when he was picking up a pizza, and I just couldn't say no. So a month or so ago, I dragged out my old wooden Kohlert bass clarinet and went down to a rehearsal.

The crowd of players is an odd mix, with the youngest clarinet-tweedling kid not looking a day over 8 and the oldest stoic trombone guy pushing 80. But all the normal dorky music personalities are there, and playing in a band like that again brings me back to my old middle and high school days, all that good Alfred Reed and Gustav Holst, the smell of the old instrument when it gets warm, the dusty floor underfoot, the drummer who forgot a pencil. It's amazing how well the motley assemblage of people in a wind band translates from a Merrimack Valley childhood to the side of the pond in downtown Reykjavík.

Except that it's all in Icelandic, which makes the whole thing kind of an even-more-bizarro world for me than the normal strangeness of a strange wind band world. Icelandic even has its own wacky names for the notes. (Where a B is an H ["how"] and a B-flat is a B. And a C-sharp is a C-ís and an E-flat is a E-es. Gott og flótt.) But I understand what's going down reasonably well, and when he says "hundrað-sextíu-og-fimm" I know that's measure 165 and that's usually enough to jump in and play some big, bad, bass-clarinet-style sustained whole notes.

And then this week I learned that this isn't just any wind band. Not just some concoction of my old neighbor, but the storied Lúðrasveit Reykjavíkur, the actual City Band of Reykjavík. Representin' the Vík, yo. With our own landmark building and everything. During post-rehearsal beers in our very own building's rec room (somehow beers were never a feature of middle school rehearsals with Mr. Thayer), I learned that not only do we represent R-town (yo) but occasionally all of the Land as well. Cause who do you think plays the Icelandic anthem at Bessastaðir when the Prez welcomes heads of state? Lúðrasveit!

miðvikudagur, mars 15, 2006

the fruit truck

Icelandic companies take pretty good care of their people, at least compared to some of the sweatshops I labored in in the good ole USA. In lieu of health insurance, which gets picked up by the Republic, companies provide a whole range of cool stuff here á klakanum:

24 days of vacation: the minimum by law, for full-time work. That's a day shy of 5 weeks, boys. And if the employer won't pay you for the time, they have to at least let you take it without pay. Things pretty well shut down in Iceland in July while the whole nation takes a bunch of contiguous weeks off.

subsidized lunch: many companies have a cook, and provide homemade lunch every day. I kick in about $75 a month, and the company picks up the rest. And our cook is stellar. He makes the best fish I've ever had, week in week out, and today was a kind of mouthwatering East-meets-Lamb over brown rice.

coffee: I ain't talkin' about no paper cup of coffee. I'm talking about a mug of coffee. Ground from whole beans and brewed fresh, at the push of a button, from a towering Selecta machine that pumps out cappuccino, hot cocoa, and lattes as well. And the coffee machine becomes a daylong gathering spot for kitchen shop-talk.

árshátíð: in a way, untranslatable, but loosely, an annual party. In addition to the Christmas party, this is an excuse for the company to pull out all the stops entertaining its people with live bands, trips to remote spa hotels, and lots of food and drink. Our old company hadn't done one in a few years, so they picked up and flew us to Warsaw last year for a long weekend.

the fruit truck: seems like perhaps the coolest bennie right now, as I chomp on a crunchy fresh apple flown in from a far-off land. Every week a truck comes to our office bearing a load of fresh fruit. It goes into a basket in the kitchen, and then disappears quickly.

Icelanders, when I tell you that you don't know how good you have it here in the Land, this is some of what I mean.

þriðjudagur, mars 14, 2006

hot tub gossip

I was sitting in the hot tub last night at Vesturbæjarlaug, listening to some college-age girls gossiping about their male friend who has apparently had a girlfriend since November, but wasn't saying much about it. For half of the girls this news was old hat, but for the other half it was new and interesting. The out-of-the-loop girls were pumping the others for information.

"I saw him at a party in January, and he didn't say anything."

"Well, you have to fish it out of him," said the jolliest of the girls, making a pulling-fish-out-of-water motion that used the hot tub water surface convincingly. (She taught me a new expression too: "Ég veiddi upp..." "I fished it out...")

Apparently something about this guy made him seem unlikely to be girlfriended. But from the tone, I took that he was one of those guys who some of the girls secretly liked, but was maybe too "weird" for them to consider dating with their early-20s worldview. Interested, but looking nonchalant, I was listening for more details, and ... WHAM!

A soccer ball travelling top speed came flying out of the swimming pool and hit me in the side of the head. It must have made a loud noise for everyone else too, because the whole crowd turned to look. It scared the hell out of me, and in moments like that one tends to forget about blending in. "Christ!" I yelled and jumped up, throwing the ball as hard as I could back into the pool, somehow hoping I would hit the thrower on the head in a kind of "sömuleiðis". But the ball skittered across the dark pool surface instead.

"Allt í lagi?" asked the girl across from me, genuinely concerned.

"Já, allt í lagi," I said. They went back to discussing Mr. Off-the-Market and I headed for the steam room.

mánudagur, mars 13, 2006


Icelandic has its own words for almost everything and "taxi" is no exception. Here in the Land it's called a "leigubíll" or a rent-car. Of course, then came the advent of the Icelandic tourist explosion and the Language Godfathers had to come up with a word for a real "rental car" and so that became, cryptically, a "bílaleigubíll". Yep, a car-rent-car. Somehow that extra "car" on the front connotes Hertz and Avis.

Well, anyway, the taxis here are often really nice, spotless cars like big Toyota sedans, or even BMWs and Mercedes, with polite, often white-haired, drivers, and always with credit card machines. (Coming in 2045 to New York and Boston!) To differentiate them from the posh sedans driven by Icelandic bankers, they drive around with a little plastic "TAXI" bubble mounted on the roof. I guess "LEIGUBÍLL" was too long.

Having been in the One True Land just a short time, I started to recognize these little plastic bubbles to mean "taxi" and so began to treat them as equals in the bizarro world of Icelandic driving. Because, generally speaking, Icelandic cabbies know what they're doing, where they're going, and which stalk is for the directional. They command respect in the land of driving cluelessness.

But there is another kind of car on the road with an almost-identical plastic bubble, and this is a car that must be steered well clear of. Because this plastic bubble sports the dreaded (and almost-too-long) "ÖKUKENNSLA". I keep thinking these other cars are taxis, and thus driving normally near them, and then, almost too late, I see the frightened 19-year-old behind the wheel, staring out through the windshield, eyes fixed forward, face frozen in a rictus of concentration. They're always trying to merge at 15 km/h (that's slow, for the American reader) and stalling out on hill starts (because they have to learn on a thing called a stick shift, Americans) and driving too near parked cars. And forget trying to hail a student driver. They don't even stop.

föstudagur, mars 10, 2006

an iceland report retrospective

Iceland Report started out as a pretty small-timey affair. People in Boston (and elsewhere in the States) kept asking me the same questions over and over about living in Iceland*, and so I decided to start answering them en masse, at first through the 1995-era technology of the cc: field, and subsequently through newfangled new-century blog technology. To be honest, I at first found the word "blog" reprehensible and disgusting, and it was this revulsion that kept me from starting a blog earlier.

But now that I've learned how to stop worrying and love the blog, Iceland Report seems to be jam-packed with new readers, and adding a few every day. I think it's time to trundle out some of the old favorites for you new kids, just so you get some damn roots, and pay the dues that the longtime regulars long ago paid. Here they are, chronologically, and also in ascending order of quality:

fresh off the airplane
lowell, iceland
saved by the swimming pool
sheep eye for the new guy
really 50
south coast travelogue
oakland, iceland
funny names
swimming in an empty pool
jersey ed
american style!
christmas revels

Enjoy! And to "duglegir" readers: let me know your favorites, either within these 14 or others you think I should have included.

* "Isn't it too cold there?" "What about the polar bears?" "Do people drive there?" "Is there an escalator in your igloo?" On and on, ad nauseum.

fimmtudagur, mars 09, 2006

house of cards?

Another temblor shook Iceland yesterday, this time in the opaque world of Icelandic banking. Analysts at Merrill Lynch in London released a scathing report on the health or lack thereof of the big three Icelandic banks: Kaupþing, Landsbankinn, and Íslandsbanki. They recommend against holding debt issued by these banks, but in justifying this recommendation they paint a well-researched picture of systemic weaknesses in Icelandic finance and the possibly shaky underpinnings of the Icelandic economy as a whole.

I couldn't put the report down last night; it read a bit like the bestselling "The Smartest Guys in the Room" (about the rise and fall of Enron). Here are some of the interesting facts I gleaned from reading:
  • Icelandic banks operate in a market that is more like the "emerging" markets (Brazil, Russia, etc) than the mature markets of Western Europe. The systemic risks associated with the Icelandic market are similar to the risks in "emerging" economies.
  • Icelanders are borrowing heavily from the future to finance the good times today. There have been huge expansions in credit (people and businesses taking loans) in Iceland in recent years, "significantly in excess of the productive capacity of the economy". Household debt in 2004 was 192% of household disposable income. Credit to the private sector amounted to 218% of GDP at the end of last year, doubling in the last 3 years.
  • Business deals in Iceland tend to be "skuggalegt" (shadowy), in the words of some old guys I overheard in the sauna. The report uses the financespeak "highly leveraged", meaning financed heavily on loans and less on up-front cash, or roughly the same thing. The report relays the story of Íslandsbanki selling part of its Sjóvá insurance arm to Þáttur, but then loaning the money to Þáttur to pay for much or all of the sale. The loan has never been repaid. Þáttur in turn owns Milestone which is a major shareholder in the bank that originated the deal. "Such arrangements do not at all appear to be unusual in the world of Icelandic finance." And, sadly, they are not.
  • The presence of HFF, the government's Housing Finance Fund, in the mortgage market means that Icelandic banks must compete with this behemoth when making mortgage loans, a business they entered in August 2004 in an attempt to shut down HFF. But since HFF is government-backed, it can offer loans on terms that the banks can't match and be profitable. So the Icelandic banks are breaking even at best, and in general losing money on their mortgage businesses while they wait for HFF to depart the market. In the rest of Europe, mortgages are a steady source of solid income for banks. In Europe, "Iceland is alone in having banks that have entered the [mortgage] market without really being able to make money from it."
  • Icelandic banks have huge stakes in the local equity (stock) market and do not disclose those stakes in a very transparent way. So their health is dependent on the health of the stock market to a much larger degree than elsewhere in Europe. "We cannot recall of a single other instance in Europe of where banks hold such substantial stakes in the local market."
  • Speaking of the stock market, Icelandic banks account for 66% of the market value of the benchmark ICEX-15 stock index, so troubles with them would effectively drag down the entire stock market.
  • Icelandic banks' "spread over sovereign" (amount of extra yield that must be paid on their debt relative to government debt) is significantly higher than European banks, so the market is already saying now that Icelandic banks are riskier than their European cousins. The authors of the report believe that the Icelandic market is in actuality even riskier than this, however, because of systemic factors such as the structure of the Icelandic mortgage market.
  • Icelandic banks rely increasingly on "external funding", that is raising of capital outside of savings account deposits, for example through debt and equity issues. This is risky since this funding can dry up almost overnight if investors decide the banks are too risky, leaving the banks high and dry. All three banks have a loan-to-deposit ratio of around or over 300%. That means they are lending out 3 times more than they have available as deposits, and using outside financing to make up the difference.
  • Icelandic banks issued so much commercial paper (short-term unsecured loans) at the end of 2005 that the European debt markets are effectively now closed to them. They are planning to issue future debt elsewhere: the U.S., Japan, Switzerland, et cetera. But it will be impossible for them to raise funds at the easy rates of the recent past, if at all.
  • A majority of outstanding debt comes due for all 3 Icelandic banks in 2006-2008. Kaupþing alone needs to refinance about US$8.6 Billion in debt in 2006-2007, a number on the same order as the GDP of all of Iceland. Having the debt structure so "front loaded", rather than evenly distributed across future years, is very risky, because it relies on favorable circumstances to roll over the majority of debt all at one go.
  • Icelandic finance is a complex arrangement of cross shareholdings. The report has an amazing diagram of these arrangements. The spiderweb of interdependent ownership is unhealthy, as it makes the true risks held by the banks (and the other parties) difficult to quanitify. This picture alone made me very nervous about the true health of the Icelandic economy. Skuggalegt, indeed.
From what I have heard, the Icelandic media, taking their lead from bank spokespeople, are downplaying the Merrill analysis, saying, in effect, "Iceland is special." or "This is based on outdated data." or "They're just jealous of our success." They shouldn't downplay this one. This is a wakeup call that the Icelandic miracle may be about to reverse dramatically.

miðvikudagur, mars 08, 2006


Yesterday E had to make a phone call, and since we live in a shoebox (albeit a seaside shoebox) I elected to take a little drive while she did. I ended up at one of my favorite easily accessible places in the Reykjavík area, the lighthouse at Grótta. Grótta is at the end of Seltjarnarnes, the peninsula that the old part of Reykjavík (and the town of Seltjarnarnes) occupies.

The weather was a beautiful Icelandic mix of bright sun and thundering downpours that came through on about 10-minute intervals. I drove to the parking lot near the lighthouse and parked facing out at giant rolling harbor waves with frothy heads and comet tails. The stoic mountains Esja and Akrafjall were directly across the water from me, powdered-sugar snow dotting the brown flanks of Esja. The sky was that choppy Gulf-Stream-ends-here mix of slate rainclouds, puffy baker's hat cumulus, and clear pastel patches the color of Easter eggs.

As is often the case, the little parking lot at the end of the world was around a third full, even at 6 p.m. on a workday. Some of the cars were parked there while their owners walked on the beach or the trails nearby, like the dad and little girl I saw coming back from a walk. He waited for his daughter while she sat down in the muddy grass next to their little panel truck and took off her wet shoes. But around half of the cars were inhabited. Next to me, parked across two spaces diagonally, was a red Hyundai. There was a girl in there smoking, staring out at the sea, and maybe writing greeting cards or a journal. A few cars down was an old fella, looking out his windshield at the waves and mountains. Everyone seemed to be there for a different reason, and everyone stayed in their cars, but it was nonetheless an odd kind of little society. There was a togetherness in the clustering of cars with the foggy windows parked alongside each other.

My car was inhabited, too. I was talking to my friend Fellas in New York while I looked out at the effervescent waves, another member of the parking-lot community of Grótta.

passing boston

Just a couple months ago it was so dark that the sunrise was happening right before lunch and sunset during the afternoon foosball hour. But since then we've been adding daylight at the amazing (but not unprecedented) rate of almost 7 minutes a day, and E tells me that today is the day when we surpass Boston and our total light exceeds here the light there by a minute or two. But Iceland won't quit, it'll just keep piling on the light at 7 minutes a day, until it's just light all the time, which starts sometime in May.

But even today, the amount of light is heavenly. No pun intended. Well, ok, maybe pun intended. First light at 7:23 this morning and it'll stay light all the way until 7:54 this evening. Það kemur í ljós.

þriðjudagur, mars 07, 2006

the necks

"Hnakki" in Icelandic doesn't have a direct translation into English, as it referrs to the area of the back of the head and neck. But a "hnakki" is also a type of male Icelander, a kind of bridge-and-tunnel* species of 20- or early-30-something male who goes to the gym a lot, maintains a healthy tan through artificial means, bleaches or highlights his hair, probably has a tribal tattoo or two, and prizes shiny cars. You can see hnakkar (plural form) if you go to the swimming pool at Árbær on a Saturday afternoon, or on weekend nights at B&T clubs such as Rex and Oliver, where they show up in full hnakki evening dress: dark suits with big-collar shirts open to reveal hairless chests. I have no idea where to go to see hnakkar during the workdays, as I never cross paths with them. Perhaps they're home living with their moms or working in video stores. They seem to only come out on the weekends, when they are rarely seen in a group of fewer than three.

My New York correspondent, Johnny Damon, visited Iceland recently, where we tried to explain "the necks" to him, much to his early amusement and confusion. He writes in with this story:

At one point on Saturday we found ourselves in NASA after Andy (the lawyer-macker) flashed his MTV ID card at the doorperson, who let us in for free. A technically proficient but extremely cheesy Icelandic band was on the stage. Not my cup of tea but the sizeable and well-dressed Icelandic crowd seemed to love it, singing along to most of the songs and dancing with great abandon. At one point this band ripped into a note-for-note (albeit with a slightly Icelandic accent) version of "Proud Mary". The Tina Turner version, that is.

We didn't stick around too long after that. On the way out I stopped in the men's room where an Icelandic babe was hanging out. Amused, I chatted with her after taking care of business. She claimed to be waiting for her boyfriend and waved toward one of the stalls. No one seemed to mind her presence. I know I didn't.

When we saw Audi on Sunday she politely inquired about our Saturday evening. I mentioned the band, pretty much describing them as I have to you: technically proficient but not my cup of tea. I couldn't tell her their name so she grabbed a copy of the Grapevine, looked up the NASA advert, started to laugh, and told me she was glad they weren't my cup of tea.

It turns out they were Skítamórall. Audi says that Skítamórall (roughly "Bad Attiude") is the House Band of the "Neck" culture. I know you guys struggled to explain the "Necks" to me at Rex. After seeing these guys and their fans in action, I think I finally get it.

Mr. Damon and I are currently working on a sociology paper comparing the Icelandic hnakkar to the "American Jackass" bridge-and-tunnelers who fill the bars on Park Avenue South every weekend in New York.

*Manhattan residents use "bridge and tunnel" to describe anyone who must journey into the 212 via bridge or tunnel (e.g. from Jersey or the Outer Boroughs) for weekend amusement. The bridge and tunnel crowd also goes to special bars and restaurants set aside for it, places a regular resident wouldn't be caught dead. We used this term in Boston as well, where Vinny Testa's was the B&T restaurant, and all of the bars near Fanueil Hall filled the suburbanites' needs for a place to call their own in the big scary city. In Reykjavík, as Boston, there aren't literal bridges and tunnels but the hnakkar do tend to live in the Reykjavík suburbs and take taxis or drive in to the 101 on the weekends, so the metaphor is apt here also.

mánudagur, mars 06, 2006


Breaking Iceland Report news: an earthquake just rumbled through the office, shaking me in my chair, and making the computer monitors shake on their stands. It lasted only a couple seconds. The craziest part was the sound, a big rumbling from the bowels of the Land. But now people are pretty much going about their business, in true Icelandic form. One guy sitting just feet away from me didn't even feel it.

This is my second one, other than some I slept through in California. The first one I remember was in Somerville, Massachusetts, early one Saturday morning when I had to be in at work before 7 a.m. The whole Somerville Theater rocked on its foundations like a container ship at sea. The Icelandic quake just now was shakier and faster, sort of like the whole office building was driving too fast over a potholed Icelandic country road.


I think I am done with parties for a while. At least throwing them. E and I threw one for my birthday over the weekend. It's a lot of effort: cleaning the house spotless, spending a few hundred bucks on 30 beers, writing Evites, obsessing over vast numbers of people for whom responding to an invitation is a Herculean/impossible task, fending off challenging parties set up at the last minute by the coworkers' social committee, and so on. But in the past it's been worth it in the end, worth the effort when the magic happens of bringing a whole bunch of different people together and seeing what happens when they meet each other.

Saturday's come-as-an-American theme party was successful, at least in terms of attendance. But we all know that attendance isn't the real story. It's the mix. It's the mix. It's the mix (backwards scratch) that makes a good party. And this party came up far short on the mixing. Very few guests left the comfort of their cliques to meet someone new standing just a few feet away. I don't know if this is an Iceland thing, or a thing with the crowd we had. But people coming over to my house and then standing around talking to people they already knew does not make a party, that's just me subsidizing people going out drinking with their friends.

It's nights like Saturday when I miss that "party sound": that ebb and flow of bubbly chatter, the fridge being squeezed open in a tight kitchen, "where do I put this?" and paper bag full of Maine microbrew, those sounds that carry so well out onto the street from a Somerville three-decker on a summer night.

föstudagur, mars 03, 2006


The other day I went for my first meeting with a client. I was alone this time, so when I got there I went to the reception desk, and in Icelandic introduced myself, said which firm I was representing, and the name of the man I was meeting. The receptionist got on the phone, called upstairs and said the equivalent of, "Do you know where John is? There is a foreigner here to see him."

I understood her perfectly, but I wonder if she forgot this. She could have said, "There is a man here, hold on... what was your name again?" Or, "You have a visitor from Company X here." Or any number of things. But to me what she said felt more like, "John! The foreigner is here to see you! Iceland's one foreigner, the one with the accent!"

Then today we had a presentation at work on the growing equality of the sexes in Iceland on family matters. The presenter seemed to take great pride in how family life was becoming more balanced in Iceland, and seemed to me a fair-minded man. But then at one point, to illustrate something, he said, "It's not as though we're all barbarians like in Turkey and Albania."

fimmtudagur, mars 02, 2006

HLÖLI @ home

Lucky visitors to Reykjavík and downtown-inclined natives know that, at 3 a.m. on a weekend night, the absolute best place to fill your greasy cravings is Iceland's sandwich mecca, Hlölla Bátar. (English translation is Hlölli's Boats, since the sub sandwiches purveyed there are referred to as "boats" in the local sub-shop parlance.)

My favorite, which I introduced to E and subsequently became her favorite, is the Pinnabátur. This is a foot-long sub on toasted bread, jam-packed with fried, thin-sliced lamb, pickled red cabbage, and special secret Hlölli Sauce. There may be other ingredients that I am now forgetting, but these seem to be the important ones. Oh yeah, grease. That's the fourth one. Grease that turns the paper wrapping transparent and dribbles down your chin in increasing amounts as you work your way through the warm papered goodness of the sandwich.

Inspired by the greatness of Hlölli, and with some leftover lamb from this weekend's Sunday dinner, we tried out our own last night. We took some fresh-made big-size hot dog rolls (the closest thing we could find to sub rolls at Nóatún) and toasted them in the top of the oven. Meanwhile, I sliced the lamb wafer-thin and let it pan fry in its own lambic juices. We added some rauðkál (pickled red cabbage: no Icelandic home complete without it) and some fine E. Finnsson Pítusosa ("pita sauce") and boom! We were suddenly kicking the sub up to notches undreamed-of by Emeril Lagasse. I think even Hlölli himself could be proud of our home-kitchen replicas of his fine boat cuisine.

double-barrel in keflavík

Last Sunday I made a suprise (but ultimately expected) trip out to Keflavík*, home of Our International Airport (KEF) and Our American Base (also KEF), to pick up E, who was on her way back from Amsterdam. To spice things up, I went a little early and checked out the Keflavík swimming pool.

It was difficult to find this pool after the boys down the street in Njarðvík confused and bewildered me with an ill-placed highway sign advertising what is perhaps a different swimming pool entirely. Like a typical male, I drove all the way from Njarðvík to its twin city of Keflavík without seeing the mythical first pool, and then up and down on the main drag in Keflavík center a couple times. Finally it occurred to me that if I can survive a 5-hour dinner party in Icelandic, I can probably ask directions without sounding like a fool. And so I stopped in at the local 10-11 (tíu-ellefu, for those of you studying up) and asked the bored-looking late-teens Keflavík-based cash register girl, and she spiked up her tone a bit upon hearing my flawless "Góðan daginn" and then gave me the route to the pool, which was only blocks away.

(She used an Icelandic phrase "fara yfir ljósin", literally "go over the lights", that I hadn't heard on account of it being my first time asking directions in the Land. But it means the same as "go through the nextsettalights" in Massachusetts directions-speak.)

By the time I got to the pool, I had precious little time before the Amsterdam flight. So it was a rush-job. I raced through the locker-room procedure, showered up, raced outside into the cold rainy air and dashed into the main pool. I had about 20 minutes before I had to leave, so I swam fast through 20 laps, which might be 500 meters, and might be more. (The pool seemed to be an odd length, more than 25 meters but less than 50.) A strange man was watching all the swimmers, sitting cross-legged at the side of the pool, underwater.

After the swim, I dashed to the nearby nuddpottur (massaging hot tub). I think that the nuddpottur is the real hidden gem of the industrial town of Keflavík. This one has pressure so high that it has chest-straps for holding yourself in. Other pools, like Hveragerði and Kópavogur, have this high-pressure-with-strap feature too, but this one is special because the jets are always on, and they are double-barreled! That's right, twin barrels of back-blasting, high-pressure massage-action. The added symmetry of the two jets really made for a special nuddpottur experience, and would make a second visit to this pool almost de rigeur.

I made a quick stop in at the gufubað (steam room) and then it was back to the locker room to get ready to go to the airport. While I was showering and getting dressed again, a tatooed American serviceman was yelling at his kid, "Can you please dry off your butt and stop standing around?" Some things never change, I guess. But it struck me, because it's something I never hear among Icelandic parents, who seem patient with their kids to the point, sometimes, of spoiling them. So it's good to know the authentic American blue-collar Winnepesaukee experience is available right down the road in Keflavík.

*pronounced KEP-lavik, if you want to sound like a pro. Otherwise, just go on saying it how you would. It don't matter to Jesus.

miðvikudagur, mars 01, 2006

the magic week

After around four months of driving to work on pitch-black mornings, we've finally hit "the week" where pre-sunrise coincides with morning commuting time. It's a magic week, but it is just a week, because by next week the magic time will already have slipped earlier, with the relentless march toward summer and the light that comes with it.

But today we were right in the magic. Driving along Sæbraut, the mountains Esja and Akrafjall across the water were like a basics class in oil painting. Almost too simplistically lit to be believed, pinkish-brown in color with delicate shadings and a washed-canvas sky behind them. I could imagine a teacher coming around to my easel and saying, "No, that's not believable, add some more color here and give it some depth." Only Iceland, and I, know how things can really look in that magic hour.

For Lisa Jollimore.